Gym memberships are notoriously hard to get out of. Sometimes you incur steep cancellation fees. And sometimes you need to fabricate an elaborate story about a mystery illness, recent layoff, or relocation to Buford, Wyoming, in order to break up with your big-box chain.
Why is it so godforsakenly difficult? Well, it is a contract, after all, that binds you to terms and conditions you probably never glanced twice at when you first signed.
“In my experience, a client always comes to me too late with a gym contract, meaning they’ve already signed it,” says Thomas J. Simeone, of Simeone & Miller LLP, a Washington, D.C.-based personal injury attorney with a background in commercial law. “Gym contracts are often difficult to terminate,” he says. “That’s not an accident. It’s something gyms want to discourage, because every day, week, or month that you remain a member, you’re paying more money.”
Here are 11 tips from lawyers (and myself, having gone through the wringer to nullify my own contract) on how to cancel a gym membership (and avoid getting screwed in the first place). Hopefully they’ll help you navigate the process and be smarter about the next contract you sign—if this didn’t turn you off from joining a gym ever again.
1. First and Foremost: Read Your Contract (the Whole Thing)
If you’re like me and have been with your gym for a few years, you probably don’t have the original copy. But if you do, look at the termination policy in the contract.
“I’ve looked at one contract, for example, that required a 30-day written notice,” Simeone says. “If you do that, your obligation to pay stops. Other gyms have a one-year contract, though.”
The fine print (and, boy, is it fine) is probably what’s going to be your undoing in the end. There isn’t a federal law about gym memberships—they vary from state to state—but some states have documents about things consumers should be aware of before signing a health-club contract, like the Health Club Services Act for New York. Search for a “health club act” or similar language in your state.
“Zero in on important sections,” suggests Simeone. “One is cost. Make sure you know if they have a right to increase the cost, charge annual fees, and how you’ll pay for the membership. Then, look at the term. How long are you locked in for, and can you ever get out of it? Read those sections very carefully. Try to negotiate on those sections, and be ready to walk away if it’s not a good fit.”
“I’ve seen gyms that require two years before a contract can be up,” says Fletcher R. Carpenter, attorney with Arizona-based Udall Shumway. Tell the manager you’d like to take the contract home to read over before signing there, where you might feel rushed to go straight to the dotted line.
2. Negotiate Before Signing
Look for places where you can negotiate the terms, cancellation policies, and even how they take payment. You’ll probably have better luck with this at a smaller gym, says Simeone. “If it’s someone who owns their own space, they’re going to have more flexibility with their contract. You could say, ‘I love this gym, but I want to make it a little easier to terminate somewhere down the road,’” he suggests. Since they want your business, they might be more accommodating than a larger fitness center.
Ideally, the changes to the contract will be made on a computer and a new version printed for you to sign. But, if you make any handwritten changes to the contract, make sure those changes are initialed by you and a manager, advises Simeone. “To be enforceable against the gym, someone on behalf of the gym has to sign it,” Simeone says. “It’s not enough if you just sign it. Later down the line, the gym can say, ‘Well, you signed it, but we didn’t initial it, so we didn’t agree to that part.’ It gives the gym an excellent argument.”
3. Review Their Health and Injury Termination Policies
Short of death, it can be quite challenging to stop membership charges. Scan the health club’s injury policies and health complications section if you need to pause or cancel.
“If you have a medical emergency, talk to a manager about your situation,” Simeone suggests. “Maybe you’ve been a member for a while, but herniated your disc and the doctor says you can’t work out anymore. You’ll have a better shot of getting out of your membership—or putting it on hold—because the gym probably doesn’t want a bad reputation.”
Even if you’re happy with your fitness center, now’s the time to re-examine their procedures in case something happens. Hypothetically, if you broke your leg tomorrow, would you be able to freeze your membership for a few months? Would they charge you a fee to freeze or pause it, or would they be willing to work with you on the situation? Would you need a note from your physician explaining that you shouldn’t be exercising? These are questions to examine now while you’re healthy.
4. If You Change Your Mind, Do It Quickly
Some gyms allow members to get out of their contracts within three days of signing them, others within five days, and smaller gyms might be more lenient.
California has a health-services contract law that says these contracts must include a five-day provision should you want to cancel it. Check to see if your state enforces a policy like that before you sign.
Many gyms charge a fee to cancel a membership. The cost can vary widely and is worth knowing about when you sign the contract.
5. Decide When You Want to Cancel Your Gym Membership
After doing some online searches around the time I wanted to cancel my membership—so I could start shopping for a new gym—I saw my gym had a 45-day cancellation policy, meaning I’d still be paying for another month and a half after I walked in to cancel. Great.
Different fitness centers and health clubs have different policies. But it’s likely your gym has at least a 30-day cancellation policy to ensure they get paid if you cancel in the middle of the month. There’s a slim chance of getting money back for any days you won’t be using the facility.
Find these details out now so you aren’t paying for two memberships at once.
6. Talk to a Manager About Terminating Your Membership
Though it would’ve been easier to allow customers to cancel via email or over the phone, my sports club didn’t have this policy and many others don’t either.
When you speak to a manager (get their name and contact details) about canceling, be prepared for some back and forth. These managers and membership employees are trained to try to retain you.
If you can negotiate not paying a fee or being charged more than 30 days, try to do that now with a manager. Get any agreements made in writing and make a copy.
7. Think Twice Before Canceling Payment
You might want to talk to management to see if the membership can be transferred to another family member or temporarily frozen instead, suggests David Reischer, attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. “Breaching a contract is always the last resort unless a person is willing to suffer the consequences of a potential lawsuit, even if the chances of the gym bringing a lawsuit is extremely remote.”
My membership with this large sports club company was directly withdrawn from my bank account (this had been set up a decade ago), so contesting the charge with my credit card wasn’t feasible. And by the time I was ready to get my bank involved, I finally got out of this membership. They refused to see their error in the cancellation process and refund me a dime.
While you might be tempted to dispute the charges with your bank or credit card and prevent further charges going forward, it’s not necessarily the best route, suggests Carpenter. “When your account becomes ‘delinquent’, most gyms continue to charge you; and after a year or so, they may sell your account to a debt collector,” he adds. “This could mean that long after you thought you ‘canceled’ your gym membership, you’ll get a knock on your door with a court summons demanding that you pay $800 in gym fees and $2,000 in attorney’s fees. It sounds crazy, but it happens.”
8. Get a Copy of the Contract
If you’re like me and you have no idea if you ever received a printed version of the contract, you’ll want to reach out to the gym to get a copy. Hint: Do this before you try to terminate or file a complaint or take legal action on the health club. Playing nice will help them be more compliant.
“Many times it’s so easy to sign up for a gym that people assume it’ll be just as easy to cancel,” says Carpenter. “This is usually not the case. If there’s a form you need to fill out in order to cancel, ask for a copy then, before you become an official member. They will likely be eager to please you because you’re a potential commission payment, and less eager to help out when you’re trying to cancel a year from now. Save the forms in a folder somewhere or scan them to a safe place online with your phone,” Carpenter suggests.
“I’ve had clients come to me who get injured at a gym and want to sue. I’ll say, ‘I need to see the contract to see if there’s a waiver. Did you waive any claim against them?’ Many times, the client doesn’t have the contract. In those cases, if we’re filing a lawsuit, you can request it. If you don’t file a lawsuit, the gym has no obligation to give it to you—they may or may not,” says Simeone. “The general rule of thumb is, if there’s no lawsuit filed and you ask them for it, they’ll give it to you if it helps them. If it’s going to help them blow you out of the water, then they’ll send it to you right away.”
If the gym says, “We don’t have a copy of the contract,” well then, you’re in luck because if you don’t have a copy and they don’t have a copy, no one has any proof what this agreement is, says Simeone. So if you say you’re stopping payments, they’d need to show contract language that says you need to be committed for a year or more. “If this goes to a court and no one has any idea of what this agreement said, a judge is going to say, ‘There’s no agreement here, how can I enforce the terms?’” says Simeone. Hopefully, then you’ll be in the clear of your obligations.
9. Determine What You’d Need to Show to Get Out of the Contract
You’ve heard of people “faking” a move to get out of gym contract. (Hey, there are worse things to lie about in this world.) If you’re moving and using that as your reason to cancel, some facilities require you to show proof (or have a specific mileage distance allotted before they let you terminate), in the form of a new driver’s license or apartment lease in order to let you out.
Yes, these parameters are extreme, but again, it’s a contract designed to benefit and protect the gym, not you.
10. Get Confirmation of the Termination
This is where I messed up, and it cost me a few hundred dollars, time, and frustration. The manager I spoke to never put the cancellation through. She put in a “change membership” request instead since I moved.
I filled out termination paperwork and handed it over, noted the date in my phone that I canceled, and was told I could use this facility for the next 45 days since I would be charged for the membership anyway. I never got a copy of the termination paperwork—I should have taken a photo on my phone—and I should have received an email confirmation that the company received my request for termination. I didn’t have the back-up information I needed later when it came to fighting with the company since the manager didn’t do what I asked.
The general rule of thumb is ‘get it in writing and keep it all,’ suggests Simeone. “Keep all of your paperwork and emails, because the way it works is, somewhere down the road, if you need to prove the agreement or the date you terminated, and you received a notice, you can testify to it all. You’ll have a better chance of it holding up in small claims court or in front of a judge.”
11. Shop Around for a Better Contract
Once you’ve been through the (often terrible) experience of canceling a membership with a gym, it’s wise to think about what you really want with your next gym and how to make that contract work for you.
You might get an excellent rate for signing up with a low monthly membership fee, then realize your annual fee is ridiculous and your monthly costs double or triple in the following years. These are line items to address right now.
If you love to take your workouts outdoors May through September and do strength training at home when it’s nice out, you might want to look for a gym that supports this lifestyle and won’t charge you for the months you don’t want to use the gym.
That said, I recognize fitness centers are a dime a dozen in urban areas, and you might be dealing with a limited selection in a rural area of the country, so flexibility and options might be nil. The next time you consider signing a gym contract, take a day or so to read it through carefully, and assume you’re going to be bound to it, suggests Simeone. Consider long-term effects and examine whether your motivation to join is a passing fluke, like a New Year’s resolution.
If you only do one thing after reading this, find your contract now or ask your gym for it before you try to cancel so you have a better idea of what’s ahead and the impact it’ll have on your wallet.